The competitive nature of some STEM programs fuel impostor syndrome in academia and this is especially true for first-generation (FG) students, according to a recent paper. A research team led by Elizabeth A. Canning, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Washington State University recruited 818 freshman and sophomore students enrolled in university STEM programs to form the conclusion. 

Participants were asked to rate their perceptions of classroom competition, and whether the instructor pitted students against one another. Surveys were completed at the beginning of a semester and after the deadline to drop courses had passed.

As the semester progressed, students were sent additional surveys asking about their class attendance, engagement with the course, and levels of confidence.

While “perceived classroom competition” led to feelings of impostorism in all students, it was more pronounced for FG students. Participants who strongly felt classes were competitive were most likely to feel like an imposter.

“Impostor feelings in turn predicted students’ end-of-term course engagement, attendance, dropout intentions, and course grades,” reads an excerpt from the paper.

“Classroom competition and the imposter feelings it engenders may be an overlooked barrier for promoting the engagement, performance, and retention of FG students in STEM.”

Researchers posit that FG students may be disproportionately affected because they are often raised to see people as peers, which contradicts the competitive, “me-first” attitude correlating with success in some programs.


The paper concedes that repeatedly asking students about their levels of confidence and imposter syndrome may have enhanced insecurity in some students.

The study also did not separate the students into sub-groups based on gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, or any other characteristic, so it’s unclear if one segment of the student population was overwhelmingly affected.

You’re not an impostor

Impostor syndrome, i.e., feeling like a fraud even in situations an individual is qualified to handle, is widespread and a common source of burnout.

A small-scale study published in September 2019 suggests 20 per cent of all college students struggle with it — and a separate January study argues the feeling can persist into grad school and beyond, with upwards of 80 per cent of medical school students reporting a low sense of personal accomplishment.

How to cope — and what to avoid

The September study found students who sought social support from people within their program tended to suffer greater feelings of impostorism, while those who sought support from people in a different major saw their insecurities reduced.

“Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups,” study co-author Jeff Bednar said in a statement.

“After reaching outside their social group for support, students are able to understand themselves more holistically rather than being so focused on what they felt they lacked in just one area.”

VIDEO: Coping with impostor syndrome

Researchers also uncovered two counterproductive ways of dealing with impostorism, including:

  • Video games. “Some students tried to get their mind off schoolwork through escapes such as video games but ended up spending more time gaming than studying,” the study’s author’s said.
  • Faking it. “Other students tried to hide how they really felt around their classmates, pretending they were confident and excited about their performance when deep down they questioned if they actually belonged.”

You have to believe in yourself

“Surprisingly, the study also reveals that perceptions of impostorism lack a significant relationship with performance,” the authors said.

“This means that individuals who suffer with … impostor syndrome are still capable of doing their jobs well, they just don’t believe in themselves.”

Header image courtesy: Unsplash/Aiony